Martin Schram: Ryan’s lesson: Even dead ends can be door-openers

He’s long and lanky, a politically ambitious Republican achiever with a dream job and an eye on a future job — someday being president of the United States.

But suddenly he finds himself dragooned by Washington-style political pressure into accepting a new job he doesn’t want — one he’s sure will torpedo forever his hope of becoming president. Yet he figures he can’t say no. So he’s feeling trapped, maybe even sandbagged.

Yes, he is Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who loves being chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but who just yielded to massive pleas from fellow Republicans to agree to serve as the next House Speaker. Ryan agreed to forsake his dream and accept his fate — if the small band of rightwing House Freedom Caucus rebels agree to accept his leadership and stop pushing to shut down the government every time they don’t get their way.

But here’s some potentially good news Ryan probably doesn’t know: This political profile also fits George Herbert Walker Bush. He too once despaired of being offered a dead-end job he couldn’t refuse. And years later, it helped him land his dream job in an Oval Office.

Rewind and recall November 1975: Bush was happily and energetically serving as President Gerald Ford’s ambassador to China, shaping an exciting new era of the Cold War. He’d been a Texas congressman, United Nations ambassador, Republican National Committee chairman. Meanwhile, Congress was probing startling abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency. Also, Ford was being pressured to dump his appointed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, for the 1976 presidential race.

What Bush didn’t know was Ford and his chief-of-staff, Donald Rumsfeld, were quietly planning a major cabinet shakeup. Then he got a stunning cable from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: Ford wanted Bush to be the new CIA director.

“Your message came as a total and complete shock,” Bush cabled back to Kissinger and Ford on Nov. 2, 1975. “Here are my heartfelt views. First, I wish I had some time to talk to one or two close friends about this matter. Second, I do not have politics out of my system entirely and I see this as the total end of any political future. … [I]f this is what the President wants me to do the answer is a firm ‘YES.’ In all candor I would not have selected this controversial position if the decision had been mine, but I serve at the pleasure of our President.”

But here is what Bush really thought:

He was sure Rumsfeld had engineered the decision to banish Bush to the CIA, figuring it would be his political Elba. Bush and Rumsfeld had been political rivals ever since they served together in the House; they were ambitious centrists who were well-liked by Republican conservatives and Democrats. Both coveted the prospect of maybe being Ford’s vice presidential running mate in 1976 and someday, running for president. Bush was sure Rumsfeld maneuvered things to send Bush into a political isolation that would end his presidential aspirations.

“It’s a graveyard for politics,” Bush wrote, in telling his three brothers and sister about the CIA job. (He signed the letter “Pop;” his family nickname was “Poppy.”) And in a Nov. 9, 1975, letter his friend Republican Congressman William Steiger, Bush made clear he believed he’d been politically shafted:

“Dear Bill … I think it is and perhaps should be, the political end. I was not [he underlined “not”] told when I was asked to decide on the CIA that Rocky was going to step out. I was given no options. … I honestly feel my political future is behind me … I have a gut feeling there were some behind the scenes politics — but now all that doesn’t matter.”

Well history proved Bush both right and wrong — as his work at the CIA became an odd but historic stepping stone. Bush famously righted things at the CIA; its headquarters is now named the George Bush Center for Intelligence. He then ran for president, became Ronald Reagan’s vice president and then America’s 41st president.

So there’s at least some good news for Paul Ryan, as he publicly awaits (and perhaps privately still laments) his uncertain fate: In politics, things often are not what they seem to be.

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Columnist Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT) Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

By Martin Schram, Tribune News Service

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected].